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How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America

How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America

I think all Americans have at least one extremely unpleasant memory of splitting the check at a restaurant with friends. Let’s face it: in the states, when you go out with a group of friends and the check comes at a restaurant, it ain’t a pretty sight. You whip out a pen and a calculator, ready for the math to begin. You beg the server to swipe six separate cards, since no one ever brings cash anymore. You start fighting over who should pay for the appetizer, based on bites taken.

While Venmo and other money transferring apps have alleviated some of the headache, there is no denying one fact about splitting the bill in America: read more

Is Moving Abroad Just a Form of Escape?

Is Moving Abroad Just a Form of Escape?

It’s a question that all expats ask themselves sometime or another:

Am I in a foreign country because I really like it here, or am I using this culture as a form of escape from a deep-rooted problem at home?

I kept asking myself this after reading “Six Foot Bonsai,” an autobiography I read for a book club.  It’s the story of a white woman from Michigan who is, to an unhealthy degree, utterly Japan obsessed.  After marrying an abusive Japanese man and giving birth to two half-children (who are subsequently abused), she explains how her fixation on Japan essentially ruined her life.

“Japan was my drug of choice,” she wrote.  “And I couldn’t get enough of it.”

This line had me thinking:

Were My Years in China and Japan a Form of Escapism?  Was Japan My Drug of Choice?

I grew up half-Asian in a small coal mining town in Utah, so to say I was isolated and outcasted is an understatement.  One medium that got me through the pain of adolescence was –yes, I must admit–Japanese anime and manga.  This is the usual ‘gateway drug’ that gets most young tweens and teens sucked into the world of Japan.

Unlike my peers, however, I fell deep for Japan.  Although I found out about Japan through anime and manga, learning the language and getting a minor in Japanese studies made me realize that I loved much more than anime–I loved Japan’s  literature, art, culture and people.  After my first exchange trip to Japan, I had fallen off the deep end and there was no going back.

And when I first moved to Japan, the “high” was amazing.  The bullet trains, the clean streets, the polite locals, the untouched nature, samurai castles and sliding doors and kimonos–oh man, it was everything I wanted and more.

But Pretty Soon, the High Wore Off

Some of these buds still need to bloom

I’m half-Asian, but most people think I’m 100% white.  As most expats like to point out, being white (or non-Asian) anywhere in Asia elicits unwanted attention.  People stare.  They point.  They treat you special.  Shower you with praise.  Immediately approach you to be their new, foreign friend.

Some expats relish in the attention.  Others find it uncomfortable.

I was the latter.

Unlike other foreigners who got a ‘high’ from being the gaijin-center-of-attention, I loathed it.  I just wanted to fit in.

But no matter how hard I studied Japanese and perfectly executed their customs, the Japanese never let me in.  In their eyes, I would forever be a gaijin.  An outsider.  A foreigner.

I was distraught.

On top of that, I saw cracks in my perfect world that was Japan.  I noticed people around me suffering from extreme bouts of loneliness.  I saw emotional suppression brought on by a repressive society.  My coworkers and friends were overworked and exhausted.  My Japanese girlfriends turned a blind eye to their cheating husbands.

I wanted to be Japanese and fit in, but my core Western values found it hard to accept the above.  I would never be able to tolerate a cheating husband.  I found it hard to do staged overtime work for the sake of it.  No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that this was Japan and I had to adapt to their ways, I could in no way persuade myself that I should change my core values for the sake of living in Japan.

After two years in Japan I realized that I couldn’t stay there for the rest of my life–so I went to China.

Again, Was I Running Away From the Real World?  Did China Mask My Problems?

From the moment I stepped foot in China, I knew this place was better suited for me than Japan.  It may sound odd, but after living in Japan it was utterly refreshing to be chewed out by someone on the street.  To see such open display of emotion–even anger or frustration–was liberating.  People screamed at me and I could scream back.  The openness of Chinese society felt like a reassuring hug.  I melted into Shanghai and it became the metropolitan life this small-town-Utah girl always dreamed of.

As I lived in China, switching between studying Chinese and working in various companies, I would talk to my friends in the US and hear about their mundane, yet stressful lives.  Going to pharmacy school.  Working the same job for four years and trying to get a promotion.  Trying to pass the LSAT (law certification in US).

In my own way I was moving on with my life, but a part of me also thought:

Am I hiding in China while the real world goes on?

Long-time readers of my blog will know that when I returned to the USA after living in Asia, I had it rough.  I had to play catch-up.  It wasn’t easy, and there were times I wanted to hop on a plane and go straight back to China.

Yet despite all the ‘pain’ living abroad brought me, I often asked myself if I would do it all over again.  Would I get on that plane to Japan at 22 years old again if I knew what I know now?  Or would I stay in the US to build up my career?

Without hesitation, I always choose to get on that plane.

And it’s because China and Japan were not my drug–they are an integral part of who I am read more

Tea Evoked Memories

Tea Evoked Memories

I recently read an article about a tea specialist and her new tea franchise in an airline magazine. While these kind of articles are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, there was one comment from the tea-master that jumped out of the page at me:

“Every cup of tea evokes a memory, a feeling, a connection to something from your past.”

I couldn’t help but think just how true this statement was, as I reflected on my favorite types of tea and how they are linked to a particular moment in my past:

Genmai-Cha 玄米茶

Whenever I drink Genmai-cha, all I can think about is Japan. The flavor is unique and difficult to describe–it’s earthy, but has a flowery and light finishing taste–like buckwheat, hay and dandelions combined.  After steeped, the tea turns the water a light yellow color, almost like a chrysanthemum flower.  It feels like the working man’s tea, the commoner’s tea, a tea that refreshes in both the summer and winter.

Genmaicha is a green tea with roasted, popped brown rice

I had just arrived in Japan the day before.  My senses were in overdrive as I took in the foreign surroundings.  I kneeled on a tatami floor and looked around my host-grandparent’s old, wooden home: paper sliding doors (shoji) opened up to a Japanese garden outside.  A wind-chime sang in the breeze.  The humidity was oppressive, and I could feel sweat rolling down my neck.  The grandma turned on a nearby fan that whizzed back and forth in an effort to cool the room.  My host grandma and grandpa sat across from me and smiled, speaking quickly and fluently, forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese.  My head was dizzy with culture shock and language comprehension, but I did my best and did what any guest would do: nod and smile.

Like a Japanese person, I picked up the small Japanese tea cup from the saucer with both hands, blew on it softly and sipped it gently without noise.  I had green and black tea in America–but I immediately knew this tea was something else.

“What name is this tea?” I asked in broken Japanese.

The grandma giggled, “genmai-cha.  Do you like it?  Hold on.”

She stood up, ran to the kitchen and returned with a pouch of tea for me.  I insisted it was unnecessary to give me a bag of tea, but she shoved the tea pouch in my hand with a smile.

Pu-Er Cha 普洱茶

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Pu-Er Cha is a high-end tea grown exclusively in China’s Yunnan region.  Although it’s somewhat easy to find low-quality pu-er tea in the states, wheels of high-grade pu-er tea are only available in China and sell for hundreds of dollars.  Among all teas, pu-er is extremely unique in taste and almost resembles coffee in its bitterness and color.  When I crumble pu-er tea in my hands, I feel like I’m crumbling soil of the Earth.  It smells like trees, soil, dirt.  It’s an Earthy tea with a rich, bitter flavor.

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I had a sanctuary in Shanghai, and it was a teahouse called Da Ke Tang.  The building is from the roaring 20s of Shanghai’s heyday and is a mix of French architecture with Chinese decorations.  The teahouse is incredibly high-end, with a chandelier in the reception room and the sitting room itself covered in gold mirrors and finely crafted wooden tables.  Old Shanghai jazz music plays here, and women in qipaos (slim Chinese dresses) stand at the bar mixing and serving tea.

Booths lined the floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out into the teahouse’s gardens.  After being seated, the qipao server would place nuts, an ashtray and a menu for the customers.  Although the menu was 10 pages long, there was only one item served:

Pu-er.

Even writing this hurts, cause I miss that damn place so much.  My Shanghai friends and I would simply sit, drink pu-er, and talk for hours.  There were times we would sit in silence, hold our teacups, and stare around the room in amazement.  It was a place that could only be in Shanghai–a memory I could only make in that city.  I sometimes spent $30 on high-end pu-er there, but it was worth it.  The server would add pot after pot of water and we would talk the hours away until our tea became too diluted to continue.

Oolong Tea 乌龙茶

I think we all know what Oolong tea tastes like.  To me, it’s the quintessential tea of Asia.  No matter where you go in Asia, it’s fairly easy to find a cup of Oolong somewhere, somehow.

I often drank Oolong tea in Japan, and it tasted just as it looked: slightly bitter with a strong barley taste.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the tea in Japan (I much preferred Genmai-Cha), but in China that changed.  For some reason, Oolong tasted different no matter where I went in China–although the smell stayed the same.

After my former roommate booted me out of her apartment because I failed to find her a white husband, I had fully moved into what I deem the best apartment I ever had the rare luck of living in. I invited Z and Jenny, my new coworkers, to look at the apartment and decided to get dinner.

We had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant only a few feet away from my new apartment.  Jenny squealed in delight when she saw that they had gong-fu-cha (kung fu tea).

A ‘gong fu cha’ (kung fu tea) set

“That’s like… a real thing?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow.  “I thought it was only made for those cheesy Hong Kong kung fu flicks.”

“Of course it is!” she laughed.  “It’s quite a show.  Do you want to order it?”

The server came out with a tray that held three extremely small cups of tea (no larger than my thumb) and a matching clay teapot.   As soon as he set the tray down, he began to flip the teapot around his hand, flip the tea cups up and down below at lightning speed—and all while pouring tea.  I wouldn’t call it an amazing show; but rather, a waste of perfectly good tea (he literally spilled it everywhere).

“The tea spilled everywhere!” I exclaimed.  “What a waste!”

Z laughed, “that’s how we pour tea in China, Mary.  It goes all over the place.”

With the smell of oolong all around us, I took one of those tiny teacups and took a shot.  “Well, douse me with another shot of Oolong!”

Irish & English Breakfast

I was never a fan of English Breakfast tea.  It’s too bitter, and putting milk and sugar in my tea weirded me out (call me an Asian tea traditionalist).

Yet when I went to Ireland, I drank the stuff like crazy.  Every morning our bed and breakfast hostess would ask if we wanted coffee or tea, and I would copy the locals and order tea.  There was something satisfying and comfortable about drinking a cup of slightly sweetened Irish Breakfast tea on a cold and crisp Irish morning.  The locals often served us ‘Barry’s Irish Tea’ and, as a result, I bought a few boxes to take home to America.

Now when I’m home and brew a cup of Barry’s, I add some sugar and cream and take a deep breath of the tea’s rich, black aroma.  When I close my eyes I instantly recall the rolling hills of Ireland and those peaceful Irish mornings.

What kind of memories do tea evoke for you?

How Do You Know Where to Settle Down?

How Do You Know Where to Settle Down?

Whenever I travel somewhere new, especially a city, I always find myself asking the same question:

Could I actually live here–or better yet–settle down here?

In Utah’s middle schools, I was brainwashed–erm, I mean, taught, that when the Mormon Pioneers hauled their wagons to Salt Lake City and first set their sights on the blue skies and the Great Salt Lake, they cried:

“This is the Place.”

Thus, Utah became the home of the Mormon Pioneers…. and Salt Lake now has a (ridiculously) named “This is the Place” museum.

But that slogan–tagline–whatever you want to call it, really stuck with me.  I thought that someday, somewhere, just like those Mormon Pioneers supposedly did, I would finally end up somewhere and say:

“This is the Place.”

Deutschland!

When I was younger I thought that, after traveling the world and living in a handful of cities, I would eventually find out where that certain somewhere was.  I had a guess it would be Japan.  Maybe somewhere in Asia.  Being from a small town, I thought living in an exciting, metropolitan city like New York or Paris would suit me.

But Even After Traveling the World, I Still Can’t Figure Out Where to Settle Down

LA Traffic on a good day

It seemed like that, no matter where I went, I was able to pick out some quirk or cultural aspect of the location that just didn’t fit my future needs.

Japan was safe, comfortable and rich with culture; but it was also an extremely overworked society that was alienating and socially repressive.

China had a lot of jobs, was home to some of the best people on Earth (Chinese friends got your back for life) and was extremely convenient.  On the flip side, the pollution and authoritarian government was kind of worrisome–especially if my husband and I ever planned to have a family.

Los Angeles has awesome food, beaches, diversity and great weather–but dear god, that traffic.

Minnesota was nice, but insular and…. flat.  Not to mention it gets -20 F (-6 C) in winter.

Dallas is not a bad place at all; but again, the sprawl and reliance on a car is something I would like to avoid.  Traffic here is also gnarly.  And the lack of nature and greenery gets me down.

Portland is by far my favorite pick of the bunch in terms of US cities, but the job market is flat.  It’s housewife or nothing in Portland.

Salt Lake City, my home, would be great because my family and friends still live there–but again, the job market is nil for me.  Plus, the car thing.  Ugh.

China was great! … But didn’t care much for the pollution

And this is where you’re probably thinking:

Jeez Mary, nitpicky enough?

When I was mentally analyzing why I could never settle down in Dallas and all the above locations, it dawned on me:

Maybe the Problem Isn’t the Place–Maybe it’s Me?

Move to Paris?

I once asked my classmate, a 55 year old lawyer turned grad student and mother of two teenagers, when she knew that she wanted to become a mother.

“Did you wake up one day and think:  Wow.  I feel it.  I really want a baby.”

“Nope.”

“What?  Really??  Doesn’t that urge for motherhood kick in eventually?”

“I was 35 and it didn’t kick in Mary,” she told me with a smile.  “You just gotta make it happen.”

…. which made me think….

….maybe that same logic applies to settling down as well.

Maybe instead of over-analyze what is the best place and why, perhaps it’s just better to put your foot down and adapt.  Maybe no one knows where they’re actually going to settle down, but sooner or later they end up making a conscious choice.

Stay here, or keep moving.

Man, would love to live in such beauty…

My husband and I are agonizing over where we should settle down.  Where we put our bags down and say “this is the place.”  Because after all of our moving, we’re exhausted.

After traveling the world for years upon years, I’m ready to put some roots down (for a while, at least).  I want to decorate a home.  I want to enjoy my neighborhood.  I want some familiar faces and stability in my life.

I’m still hoping that someway, somehow, I’ll arrive to that special place one day–look around–and think:

This is the place.

How did you decide where you were going to settle down?  Or have you thought about where you’ll settle down? read more

What a Trump Presidency Means for US-Japan-China Relations

What a Trump Presidency Means for US-Japan-China Relations

Two Chinese girls looking out at Tokyo with a faux statue of liberty. The US-China-Japan all in one photo.

It’s only been one day and we are already starting to see the damage.  The repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The disappearance of the Climate Change page on whitehouse.org.  Re-negotiations of NAFTA.  It’s all really happening.

Yesterday, in a truly humbling event, scores of Women’s Marches were held around the world. Women (and those who support women and diversity) stood in solidarity for equality, love, and women’s rights.  I was rooting for all of you.

Although these marches spanned the globe, they mostly represented a fight for U.S. domestic policies.  Planned Parenthood, immigration, education, healthcare–Americans turned out in record numbers to fight for these rights.

But I’m Here to Talk Foreign Policy

I’m currently taking a Failed States & Insurgencies class (I know, sounds uplifting right?).  The professor is young, but captivating and ridiculously intelligent.  He lived in Central Asia for years and actually worked with warlords in failed states formed from the ruins of the USSR.

“Climate change isn’t that big of a deal,” he announces to the class.  “Now wait, before you start throwing tomatoes at me I want to tell you the most pressing threat to humanity, something that is far more deadly than climate change–and that’s nuclear warfare.  One wrong move, one wrong word, one miscommunication and all of mankind is wiped out, save a few unlucky souls.  All your friends.  All your family.  Wiped from the face of this Earth.”

He pauses.

“So yes, international relations is important.  Sure, climate change is a big deal and I know we can deal with it when mankind is pressed with the urgency–but nuclear warfare?  That is a much more pressing and delicate subject.”

So while domestic policies worry me a lot, it’s the danger the Trump administration could inflict in the realm of foreign policy that keeps me awake at night.  Most voters go to the ballot with daily grievances in mind–I went in knowing that Trump could change the entire world order.

Security in Japan

During his campaign, Trump said the U.S. shouldn’t be the world’s police and we should withdraw and/or reduce U.S. military presence in Japan (even though Japan pays a hefty sum of money for our military to be there in the first place).

Can you imagine what would happen to Japan if the U.S. left, especially with a rising (and aggressive) China next door under the rule of President Xi Jin Ping?

That’s why Prime Minister Abe basically ran to Trump tower mere days after the election results.  Although Japan has recently built up its domestic military (aka self-defense force) under PM Abe, the country would be almost defenseless without U.S. assistance (and that’s because after WWII we did not allow them to have any form of military of self-defense).

After the Abe-Trump meeting, it seems that Trump will likely not go through with his campaign rhetoric in terms of military presence in Japan–much to Abe’s relief.

Security in China

I have one word to sum up all current security tensions with Trump & China:

Taiwan.

China has one, and only one issue it is absolutely non-negotiable with, and that is territorial sovereignty–especially over Taiwan.

I read a 100 page security briefing on tensions between US-China from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and most conflicts arose from Taiwan.

Trump taking the phone call from pro-independence Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen is a big deal.  It has elicited confrontational and disturbing comments from China.  If Trump changes his policy towards Taiwan, if he recognizes it as a sovereign nation, China is not afraid to strike.

China attacks Taiwan.  The U.S. comes to defend Taiwan.  Russia supports China in its claim for Taiwan.  Japan also comes into the fight.  Starts looking like a world war.

Even if it doesn’t begin with a full-frontal fight over Taiwan in the straits, one wrong move from increased naval ships from the U.S. or China in waters near Taiwan could easily escalate into unnecessary warfare.

The day after the election results I asked my professor what he thinks will happen between U.S.-China, especially with TPP gone and possible military pull out from the Asia Pacific, as stated in Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

“I don’t think the U.S. will pull out,” he cried. “Trump said he will double spending on the military budget.  One day after the election and defense contractors had a spike in their stock.  He’s obviously going to beef up the military–but why?  Perhaps an attack against China?”

I’m extremely skeptical that the U.S. will attack China and I would rather bet my money on a conflict arising from Taiwan than all-out military warfare between US-China.  However, one does have to wonder why the U.S. is upping its military strength.

Trump and the China-Japan Economy

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a multilateral trade agreement initiated by the US and included 12 countries in the Asia Pacific and the US read more

The Ruby Ronin’s 2016 Year in Review

The Ruby Ronin’s 2016 Year in Review

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As social media and the internet have already proclaimed, 2016 was not exactly a great year.  Dozens of amazing, life-changing and truly respectable celebrities passed away–and most of them, in my opinion, left this world too soon (Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince… just to name a few).

The most devastating public tragedy to occur in 2016, in my personal opinion, is the election of Donald Trump.  I’m in disbelief that a bigoted, low-intelligence, tax-evading, rapist could become president.  I go into 2017 with a heavy heart and sincere concern about the U.S. and the world.  As someone studying foreign policy day-in, day-out, I am extremely aware of the damage an unpredictable president like Trump will do, and it is very frightening indeed.  I went into graduate school with the high hopes of graduating, working hard to get a job in the federal government and serve under the first female president–and now everything has changed.  My future looks uncertain.

The end of 2016 also invoked personal pain and heartache.  My hometown in Niigata, Itoigawa City, was engulfed in flames on December 22nd.  Over 140 buildings were lost to the fire.  However, because of the tight-knit community and the warning systems put in place, no one was injured or dead.  Over 800 people were safely evacuated.  My friends lost their homes and the entire downtown of Itoigawa is now charred to a crisp.  It was heart breaking.  A city with so many memories and so much history–lost.

Yet if there is one thing I know the Japanese do best, it is rebuild.  After fighting the fire for 1.5 days, the town got together on day 2 and already started preparations to rebuild Itoigawa.  I wish I could be there to help them–the Itoigawa community is my second home, and I truly love them.

Aside from rather gloomy world events, how did my 2016 fare?  Thankfully, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, although there were some rough spots.

The Year of Travel (and seeing old friends)

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Sunset in San Diego with Z and Jean

I traveled a lot in 2016.  I went to Japan and visited old stomping grounds (Takamatsu and Hiroshima) as well as new ones (Kumano Kodo and Kamakura).  I stopped by Shanghai and saw old friends and had an epic journey with J to Zhangjiajie, Hunan.  I went to Canada for the first time with Richard, where he took me to Vancouver and Whistler (and I’ll definitely write about this amazing country later!).  We also ventured to Minneapolis, Duluth, Lake Superior, Napa, Sonoma and finished off the year in Costa Rica.

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Zhangjiajie with J!
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Kumano Kodo!
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Mt. Whistler in Canada!
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Lake Superior!
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Ethiopian food in Minneapolis!
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Z soakin up the sun in La Jolla, San Diego

This year taught me that frequent travel is possible without being a nomad.  Sure, roaming the world from one destination to the next with a backpack and a camera is exciting and fun; but the road can get lonely, and not having a home to return to starts to burn a hole in your heart.   It’s nice to travel and explore… but it’s even better to return to someone you love and a cozy, stationary home.

Family and Health Concerns

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Brought my dad to San Diego before his operation

Earlier I wrote about this briefly, but my father was very ill this year.  He suffered from congestive heart failure and underwent a complicated quadruple bypass surgery.  The before-after process for surgery was truly heart-wrenching, but luckily the procedure and his recovery was smooth and successful.

My father is already his usual jolly self and nearly 100% recovered.  I am beyond relieved.He still has some other health issues to tackle, but for the most part he is doing just fine.

Although I truly miss life in Asia, it’s moments like this that make me glad I’m in the United States.

Graduate School Highs and Lows

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One high is definitely living here

2016 was the year I took the plunge and quit my job to go back to school.  The mental trauma the entire process of graduate school incurred was monumental.  One month prior to graduate school I had nightmares and cold sweats about whether I was doing the right thing or not.  I am not rich and I do not have the luxury to go to graduate school to get a humanities/political science degree, I frequently told myself.  Is this going to be worth it?  Am I doing the right thing?

Oh my goodness readers… days before my first class, I almost quit the program.  Making the decision to spend thousands (like, thousands and thousands) of dollars on education was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

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San Diego sunsets for healing

Also,  I don’t know if it’s my program or what, but graduate school is tough as shit.  It’s like undergrad on steroids, crack and LSD all at once.  I spend every waking hour of my life (not exaggerating) either in class learning or at the library studying.  I probably read close to 500 pages of text and write up to 5 papers per week.  I realized that graduate students are the ultimate masochists, because we pay so much money to suffer.

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Yet, I have no regrets.  I’m learning an insane amount of information.  My view of the world, and the U.S. government, has been flipped upside down (and in a good way).  My program has four career coaches to help us find employment.  95% of the graduating class is employed.  I’m in good hands.

I also have to say that: If I went to any other graduate school (including the expensive ivy-league ones), this degree would probably not be worth it.  My school is highly ranked, has incredible faculty; teaches us applicable, real-world knowledge and is affordable.  The value of graduate school is definitely in the caliber of the school and faculty more than the piece of paper.

And Finally, The Big Announcement

Atop the peak of Mt. Whistler, Richard popped the big question.

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I now have even more to look forward to in 2017.  Time to plan that wedding.

Happy New Year Everyone!

2016 had some bad (ok, a lot of bad), but it definitely had some good.  I’m hoping that, despite our idiot president and all, 2017 will be a good year.  I will graduate, get married and hopefully find that career I’ve been striving after for so many years.  Although I’m not looking forward to the wedding planning, I’m definitely excited about the next chapter of my life after graduate school–and most of all, starting a new life with Richard.

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Have a happy 2017 everyone!

3 Reasons Chinese People Like Trump

3 Reasons Chinese People Like Trump

Chineseliketrump

Like most of America, I was devastated on the morning of Wednesday, November 9th 2016.  The impossible happened.  The United States elected a KKK endorsed rapist to the most powerful position in this country.  As a minority, I was horrified; and as a woman, I was absolutely disgusted.

Ill with a hangover and still in a state of shock, I rolled over in bed and reached for my phone.  I had a slew of frustrated and hopeless texts from friends around the states.  My Facebook feed was awash in anger, denial and filled with dispute.  I opened my WeChat account to find…

“I saw that Trump won, Mary!  You must be so happy to have such a charming and charismatic president in office, right?”

What?  I had to do a double take.  Did my Chinese friend just describe Trump as a charming person?

“I don’t understand this election stuff much,” another Chinese friend texted.  “But looks like Trump is pretty good, right?  Better than Hillary, anyway.”

Oh my god.  What is going on!?

“Mary,” my boyfriend texted me yesterday. “My (Chinese) parents and all their Chinese friends (living in an extremely liberal state as U.S. citizens) voted for Trump.”

Although the hangover was fresh, I ran to the kitchen to find the closest bottle of wine I could.  This was just too much.

Chinese people, even those living in the states, endorse Trump.  My brain still can’t even compute it.

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Why Do Chinese People Like Trump?

My Japanese friends do not like Trump.  My Korean friends do not like Trump.  To hear my Chinese friends–really, any minority–endorse Trump is beyond me.  Still, I tried to stay rational and think it through.  What in god’s name motivated their decision?

According to a poll by a Chinese newspaper Global Times in March 2016, 54% of 3,300 mainland Chinese respondents said they supported a Trump presidency.  On Weibo (Chinese Twitter) there were 10 Trump fan groups with over 1,000 followers each, such as “Trump Fan Club,” “Trump Light of the World” and “Trump Commentary.”  Chinese people in the groups commented that the Republican party is “more sensible” and “cares more about business and trade than human rights.”

Meanwhile, the communist party smugly nods with a smile and comments: “[The] Trump phenomena shows the U.S. public is getting weary of party politics” and that “the democracy America advocates has boundaries.” 

So just what in god’s name made the Donald so popular in China?

  1. He’s a Businessman

Nothing speaks louder to the Chinese than money.  Many middle-class Chinese seeking wealth and riches look at Donald’s extravagant hotels and lavish lifestyle and are instantly sold.  To them, a man who knows business should be running the United States.  Sadly, money still reigns supreme in China.  In a place where an entire country and culture were decimated by an authoritarian regime, but later rescued through the power of money and economic revolution, it’s no wonder the citizens think that business is best in terms of politics.

Although many Chinese said they appreciated Trump’s focus on trade and economic development, they seemed to have missed the part about Trump’s pledge to slap 45% tariffs on all imports from China, which would cripple the U.S. and Chinese economy.  Plus, most of Trump’s businesses and investments resulted in bankruptcy and failure–but hey, why get into the nitty gritty?  He’s confident, wears a great suit and rich–good enough.

2.  Clinton Was “Anti-China”

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton heavily criticized China–and when I mean criticize China, I mean criticize their human rights record and lack of climate change reforms.  As Secretary of State, Clinton also pushed for a “pivot to Asia” alongside Obama as a means to further strengthen ties with the Asia Pacific in a changing world.

Apparently, Chinese people don’t like being criticized, and they don’t appreciate a “pivot,” either.  Many Chinese saw the “pivot” as “containment” and were discontent with her bossy attitude in telling Beijing to stop its expansionist behavior.  When it came to the South China Sea, they didn’t want to hear Hillary complain for another 4-8 years.

Chinese citizens wanted someone who was practical with money and didn’t make a fuss about silly things like, you know, freedom of speech and human rights.

Plus, social media in China was awash in ageism and sexism regarding  Hillary.  One Chinese (female) user commented:

“She is so old. Why can’t she go home and help raise children?”

Ouch.

I can understand their bitter sentiment toward the “pivot,” but in terms of human rights I’m simply baffled.  Isn’t that why Chinese people immigrate to the United States?  So they won’t get locked up for speaking their mind?  Some acquaintances in China even told me that people “disappeared” for selling the wrong stock at the wrong time.  Don’t they want to safely practice business and protect their assets?  And don’t the Chinese flock to the U.S. for cleaner air and a better environment?  Isn’t that exactly why Clinton and Obama pushed China into the Paris Climate Agreement?

Again, any criticism about China, even if it’s in the best interest of their people, is apparently bad.

3. Chinese Media Influence

Like Russia, when China knew that Trump had an actual shot at winning, they rolled with the punches and made him shine on TV.  Nothing would split the U.S. more or ruin the enticement of democracy like an angry America with Trump as president–and they wanted to make that happen.

“From a comprehensive view, it would make it easier for China to cope if Trump is elected. This is because under the policy line advocated by Obama and Clinton, the political and military frictions between China and the U.S. will be more frequent.”

Chinese Media and government backed commentators were sympathetic toward Trump.

And by god, it worked.

I Know, Not ALL Chinese People Feel This Way

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I have a lot of Chinese friends in China (like Z, god bless you) who was also stunned and shocked by a Trump presidency.  Many Chinese-American friends are also disappointed in the results.

In a country that has been void of elections or any independent political movements for more than 70 years, it makes sense that Chinese citizens are still… well, confused.  Chinese people just don’t understand how democracy works, and with a quick glance at their history and government, it’s easy to understand why.

However, the China response to Trump has made me wonder:

What would happen to China if they could actually vote for their leader?

For me, it’s a troubling thought indeed.

Sources:
Brookings Institute: “What do Chinese People Think of Hillary Clinton?”
Brookings Institute: “What Do Chinese People Think of Donald Trump?”
Asahi Newspaper: “Chinese State Media Signal Trump Preference”
Fortune: “Donald Trump is Oddly Popular in China”

Hiking Zhangjiajie in Hunan: A Must See in China

Hiking Zhangjiajie in Hunan: A Must See in China

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Hunan.

In high school, I worked at the only Chinese restaurant in my very humble town called “Hunan Village.”  I neither knew what, or where, Hunan was at the time.

Fast forward six years later, and I meet the inspiration for my foray into China: a man named Chen.  Through our friendship, he inspired me to not only self-study Mandarin in Japan, but also to study abroad in Beijing and later take the plunge and move to Shanghai.  Honestly, without Chen, China wouldn’t even be a part of my life.

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Chen and I from six years ago when we traveled to Korea

Chen is from Hunan.

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Chen with his AWESOME WIFE!

For years, Chen has been urging me to see his homeland, so when I told him I was going back to China this summer, he and his wife invited me to go–and I did.  I finally made it to Hunan province, the hometown of the infamous Mao Ze Dong, the land of hot peppers and spices, a province full of minority tribes and ripe with national parks.

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Believe it or not, this is supposed to be Mao Ze Dong. Gotta love that wind blowing in his hair.

The trip was a wake up call for me.  Chen’s father father lived in a crumbling, concrete apartment building from communist-era China, covered in mold and black decay. Despite all of the wealth in Shanghai and the coastal cities, it was then I realized that although China has managed to lift 250 million people out of poverty, most of its citizens still live in staggeringly poor conditions.

Outside of Chen's father's home
Outside of Chen’s father’s home

Chen’s family was more than generous.  They invited me into their home, prepared the best Chinese food of my life, and made many toasts to my travels.

This is why I love China.
This is why I love China.

After visiting his family, Chen encouraged me to see Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO world heritage site and the pride of his home province.  Although he was unable to accompany me, I was able to persuade J to escape from Shanghai and follow me to the countryside.

And by far, Zhangjiajie was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had in China.

Zhangjiawha?

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Zhangjiajie is a city located in northern Hunan province and is a five hour bus ride from the capital city of Changsha.  The national park Wulingyuan within Zhangjiajie City was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992.  The first city here dates back to 221 B.C.–so yes, this place is really, really old.  Zhangjiajie is also home to one of China’s minority tribe which, unfortunately, also means it’s the poorest region in Hunan.

Most know Zhangjiajie as the inspiration for the movie Avatar, and it’s easy to see the similarities.  Zhangjiajie is a natural playground of rock formations.  Like fingers reaching up to touch the heavens, the jagged, quart-size sandstone columns hidden in the ephemeral mist of this rural piece of China makes for a mystical landscape indeed.  Some of these columns are almost 600 feet (200 meters) high!

The Good: Must See, Jaw Dropping Views

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The scenery at Zhangjiajie was, simply, the most badass thing I’ve ever seen.  Yes, this place is “touristy,” but like the Grand Canyon or the Notre Dame in Paris, it still doesn’t fail to impress.  Compared to other places in China, it wasn’t even that bad.  Hawkers didn’t harass me at every turn and corner and I was able to enjoy nature without someone trying to sell me something every five minutes (which happens everywhere else in China, trust me).

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Highlights included Jinximen, a path at the base of the sandstone formations that runs alongside the bubbling brooks and rivers.  Although there were some slight showers while J and I hiked the trail, it was a blessing in disguise because we were awarded with the mist factor.  A touch of mist, the mountains above, the rivers rushing by us–my god, it was perfect.

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The view from the top of the glass elevator was excellent.

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J: Oh shit! 600 foot elevator in China?! I’m totally a goner…!!
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…or maybe not 😉

Another must see view was tian guan tai (天观台), a fairly empty (yes!) viewing spot where J and I sat on a rock, dropped our backpacks, and stared at this magnificent view in utter silence for almost fifteen minutes.  We were very impressed.

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My favorite hike was, without a doubt, the aptly named “10 mile painting.”  From the peak of tian guan tai down to Wulingyuan City, this long ass strenuous descent down into the City is hard on the legs, but easy on the eyes.  Every time J and I rounded a corner we had to whip out our cameras.  Every step led us into a new landscape, a fresh perspective, a beautiful painting.  The most photogenic hike ever. read more

Interview with Weina Dai Randel on Her New Book “The Moon in the Palace”

Interview with Weina Dai Randel on Her New Book “The Moon in the Palace”

I am very delighted today to post my first book review and interview with talented author, Weina Dai Randel!

The Moon in the Palace is the tale of China’s famous (and only) empress, Wuzetian.

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I first learned about Wuzetian in my Chinese language class at Tsinghua University, where I was forced to learn words such as “decapitate,” “sever” and “jar in a head” in order to read and understand the gruesome tale of China’s empress.  While my Chinese language book’s rendition of her history and reign painted her as an ice cold queen who ruled with cunning and fear, a part of me still wondered: Could China’s one and only empress be that ruthless?  Is there a back story?

Well, my wish was heard with Weina’s book falling into my hands.  Weina tells Wuzetian’s story not merely as a biography–but as a colorful and human tale of a girl who has to make heart wrenching decisions while struggling to survive in a brutal dynasty.

First of all, I must say: I love this book.  Honestly.  I wasn’t paid to say this.  IT’S VERY, VERY GOOD.

I haven’t had a book push me to turn pages and read for hours on end for YEARS.  Reading this book brought me back to my younger years where I was so engrossed in a book I forgot about the outside world and focused only on one thing: what happens next.  When I say this book is a page turner, I mean it.  I guarantee you will fly through it in a week, tops.

Without further ado, I’ll have the author introduce herself and The Moon in The Palace!

Please tell me about yourself and why you became a writer.

I was born in China and grew up there. I came to U.S. when I was twenty-four. I’ve been living in Texas for almost fifteen years.

I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I read a lot when I grew up, not just regular kids’ books with pictures, but those serious large volume novels. I began to read the popular wuxia novels written by Jin Yong, Liang Yusheng and Gulong in third grade, and when I was in fourth grade, I already finished reading Dreams in a Red Mansion. Why these serious stuff? You may ask. The truth is I couldn’t find any books for kids in my parents’ house. Those serious stuff were my older brother and older sister’s, and I had to steal from their night stands at night and return them in the morning so they wouldn’t find out. I think my earliest seed of wanting to be a writer came from reading those books.

I actually tried to write a novel one summer. I was still in elementary school, I think, and I only finished one paragraph! But when I was in fourth grade, I published my first short story, and I became a little reporter of the magazine. I was thrilled. After that, I often fancied to become a writer.

How and when did you first become interested in China’s history?

I was always interested in history, any history, not just China’s history. It’s in my blood, I think. I grew up memorizing and reciting the poems composed in ancient time, and I was always fascinated with powerful stories in the past and courageous figures who made impact on the other people’s lives. So in a way, to me, the past was gone, but the stories always stay with me.

For those who do not know her, could you give a brief introduction and summary of Wu Ze Tian?

Empress Wu, daughter of a governor, was summoned to serve Emperor Taizong when she was thirteen. After Emperor Taizong’s death, she became the wife of the emperor’s son, Emperor Gaozong. The Emperor, who suffered strokes that robbed him of vision, appointed her as the co-ruler of the country and after his death Empress Wu denounced Tang Dynasty and founded her own dynasty, Zhou Dynasty, and became the first and only female to rule China in her own name. Under her reign, China blossomed; literature, art, architecture, and trade reached zeniths unmatched in other dynasties and China became a role model for its many neighboring countries. Her reign, lasting as long as half a century, was highlighted in the Chinese history and praised as the Golden Age.

Why Wu Ze Tian? What was your inspiration for writing the book?

I was inspired to write about a strong Chinese woman after I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in graduate school. The book had a chapter about an unmarried woman who drowned herself because she was pregnant and her pregnancy was considered as a disgrace to her family and the village. I didn’t like that story, and I wanted to tell my friends in U.S. that China had many strong and successful women. Empress Wu was the first woman I had thought of.

However, when I began to research about her, I realized that even though she was a household name in China, she’s not well-known in U.S. So I decided to write her story and introduce her to American readers, and perhaps, also introduce Chinese culture and my favorite classic Chinese literature to American readers.

How much of this story is true?

You know I’m very happy you asked this question! It’s wonderful to hear readers ask how much is true after they finish reading. This is one of my goals, too, that readers will be intrigued by the novel and investigate further.

So to answer your question, the following is true:

1). All the male with names, except the eunuch, are true. They were real people who existed during the Tang Dynasty.

2). The women, such as Mei, Mei’s mother, the Noble Lady, who is also known as the daughter of Emperor Yang, the Xu Girl, Empress Wende, are true. And no. Jewel is fictional. And all Mei’s friends in the Inner Court, such as Plum and Daisy are fictional.

**Possible Spoilers!**

3). The attempted assassination of Emperor Taizong is true. It was recorded. So was his illness. Although many historians were not sure if it was stroke or something else.

4) The background information of Emperor Taizong killing his brothers, the incident at the Xuan Wu Gate, is also true. It was recorded, although the perspective may be different, depending on who wrote the history.

5). The rebellions of the Crown Prince Li Cheng Qian and Prince Yo are true, although historical record indicated they were plotted separately and did not cause any serious damage on the palace. So you can guess, the punishment of the Uncle and the Crown Prince and Prince Yo is also true, even though the rampage through the palace is fictional.

6) Much of the cultural elements, such as the Adulthood Ceremony, the Emperor’s bedding schedule, the polo game, the hierarchy of the palace are also true.

How much research did you do for this book? It’s very in-depth!

Ah, all the research I did. I spent three years just to gather all the relevant material about Empress Wu and Tang Dynasty, and of course that was not enough.

I also spent more than another three years to study classic Chinese literature, Shi Jing, The Art of War, Confucius’ Analects, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Jing, Ban Zhao’s The Book for Women, and numerous poems composed during Han Dynasty, Tang Dynasty, and even Song Dynasty, so I could have a feel of living in the ancient world in China.

I also read a lot of scholarly articles, dissertations, papers, that focused on Tang Dynasty, and many books solely discussing many aspects of life in Tang Dynasty, such as Charles Benn’s Daily Life in Traditional China and all of Edward H. Schafer’s books about Tang Dynasty.

I also dug into many articles regarding architecture, rituals, silkworm farming, silk weaving, Silk Road, polo game, and women’s dowry, and their lives in and outside palace in general.

Even when I was writing, I continued to review the exotics, the grooming of horses, and the imperial stables, etc. So in conclusion, I guess I can say the research was an education of almost ten years.

I noticed the main character “Mei” quotes Lao Tzu quite often. Was Wu Ze Tian as educated as she is in your book, or is her interest in the Art of War an influence from your personal interest, or both? read more

Cost of Living: Los Angeles vs. Shanghai

Cost of Living: Los Angeles vs. Shanghai

Shanghai Los Angeles Cost of Living

One of my biggest forms of culture shock upon moving back to the United States was cost of living.  It felt like everything in the United States was way, way more expensive than Shanghai.

In my previous post, I calculated and compared the cost of living between Los Angeles and Tokyo, and I found that living in Tokyo could actually save you 10,000 USD per year compared to life in Los Angeles. I’m a huge advocate for living abroad to not only broaden horizons, but to also save money.

So how does life in Shanghai fare when it comes to cutting costs?

First Off, Let’s Talk Salary

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Like Tokyo, the level of salary you’ll receive in Shanghai is much less than what you would make in the United States.  In fact, Shanghai’s wages look so low you’ll actually question how people in Shanghai even survive at all.  Also keep in mind, the wages listed below are real wages that my friends and I have earned, and reflect the foreigner’s salary and not the local Chinese salary.  Believe it or not, locals in Shanghai only make 7k RMB per month (1,000 USD) on average, which is considered a “high” salary.

Again, this scenario is based upon the typical salary of an English teacher in China since that is how most foreigners get their foot past the great wall.  The average salary for an English teacher in Shanghai is about 110,000 RMB per year, or roughly 22,524 USD per year. 

We all know that living in Los Angeles on 21,000 USD per year is madness, so instead I’m going to compare with the same salary benchmark we used in the Tokyo scenario, which is 35,000 USD per year. read more